Sometimes you read something and you find it impossible to understand how you didn’t see it that way before. It’s so obvious, it was right in front of your face, and yet it escaped you.
That was how I felt reading Shulamith Firestone’s discussion of Freud.
Most people, I hope, have some vague idea of ‘the Oedipus complex’. For those who need refreshing: children at first develop feelings of (semi-sexual) desire towards their mothers and hostility and rivalry towards their fathers. For male children, this develops through the ‘Oedipal conflict’ in which the child is terrified that his father will ‘castrate him’ as punishment for his ‘incestuous’ desires, a conflict which is ‘resolved’ by getting the male child to identify with his father and redirect his desire for his mother onto women outside the family – in wider adult society, which he is made able to navigate by his father-identification, his reconciliation to society and its order.
The female child, on the other hand, goes through an ‘Elektra conflict’ as she comes to feel that she herself has been castrated when she perceives that they lack the penis of her brothers and father, and she tries to compensate by competing with her mother for fatherly affection in the hope that by pleasing her father, or rather, by pleasing men in wider society, she can ‘regain’ her lost penis through having a baby. If these conflicts are not successfully resolved, the person goes into adulthood with a ‘complex’ that makes them crazy.
Sounds pretty kooky, huh? Lots of incestuous sexuality, and everything seems to involve either a penis or an Ancient Greek myth. What the hell’s going on there?
Then Firestone answers the clue phone and tries to explain it without focusing so much on penises:
“Let us look at this…family in which the Oedipus complex appears…the man is the breadwinner; all other members of the family are thus his dependents…even if the woman is equally educated, even when she is working…she is rarely able…to make as much money as her husband…even if she is, later, when she bears children and takes care of infants, she is once again totally incapacitated.
[The male child] is sensitive to the hierarchy of power…In the traditional family, there is a parental polarity: the mother is expected to love the child devotedly, even unconditionally, whereas the father, on the other hand, seldom takes an active interest in infants – certainly not in their intimate care – and later, when the son is older, loves him conditionally, in response to performance and acheivement.
If the infant’s basic needs are taken care of by his mother, if he is fed, dressed, and coddled by her, if he is loved by her ‘unconditionally’ as opposed to ‘conditionally’ by his father – seldom seeing him and then only for punishment or ‘manly approval’…then it is true that every normal male first identifies with the female.
As for desiring his mother – yes, this too. But…the child does not actively dream of penetrating his mother. Chances are he cannot yet even imagine how one would go about such an act…only later…must the sexual separate from other kinds of physical and emotional responses. At first they are integrated.
What happens at the agfe of six when the boy is suddenly expected to start ‘shaping up’, acting like a little man?…If he cries he is called a ‘sissy’; if he runs to his mother, a ‘mama’s boy’…The boy fears his father, rightly. In most cases he has already observed very clearly that his father makes his mother unhappy, makes her cry, doesn’t talk to her a lot, bullies…However, suddenly now he’s expected to identify with this brutish stranger. Of course he doesn’t want to. He resists. He starts dreaming of bogeymen.
This is his ‘difficult transitional phase’. What finally convinces the normal child to reverse his identification?…The offer of the world when he grows up. He is asked to make a transition from the state of the powerless, women and children, to the state of the potentially powerful…Most children aren’t fools. They don’t plan to be stuck with the lousy limited lives of women. They want that travel and adventure. But it is hard. Because deep down they have a contempt for the father with all his power. They sympathise with their mother. But what can they do? They ‘repress’ their deep emotional attachment to their mother, ‘repress’ their desire to kill their father, and emerge into the honourable state of manhood.
It is no wonder that such a transition leaves an emotional residue, a ‘complex’. The male child, in order to save his own hide, has had to abandon and betry his mother and join ranks with her oppressor. He feels guilty. His emotions towards women in general are affected…
Like the little boy, the little girl loves her mother more than her father…At about the age of five, she consciously begins to observe the father’s greater power, his access to that interesting wider world that is denied her mother. At this point she rejects her mother as dull and familiar, and begins to identify with her father…yet that world is still denied her…It is hoped…that the abstract promise of a baby will be enough of a lure to substitute for that exciting world of ‘travel and adventure’.
Of course in the period between Freud’s time and now there has been some shift away from such rigid and universal roles in many societies. But we can generalise the ‘father’ and ‘mother’ positions here, to speak of ‘the parent who disciplines, controls, dominates, who judges and loves conditionally, who has power and expresses aggression’, and conversely of ‘the parent who cares and nurtures, who is kind and loves unconditionally’, whichever particular person fits each one – or even if the roles are combined to varying extents in different parents.
We could even extend the terms to include things outside the family, though in a secondary capacity – those who dominate vs. those who care and support, in school, in shops, on the news, in church, at the doctor’s, etc. I’m hoping to start reading a bit about Lacan, and I know one of his ideas was to talk about ‘The Name of the Father’ as a general conceptual category, in place of the actual male parent. I don’t want to seem like I’m personally accusing every father in the world. This is by-and-large overall dynamics of society. Most people’s experience will buck these trends in some areas.
What Firestone is saying (or showing Freud to be saying) is that children have the right idea to begin with. They respond to empathy and love with love and empathy: they respond to power with hostility and fear. If they stayed like this into adulthood it would be a disaster! Anyone trying to exert control or gain power would be met by immediate smack-downage. Economic systems based on dominance and hierarchy would collapse. It would be anarchy!
So children have to be ‘adjusted’. This basically amounts to ripping off their heads and putting them back on the wrong way round. From meeting power with hostility and fear, they must be made to meet power with identification, with love. They must be made to see that they can only become members of society if they feel empathy and compassion for the most powerful, for those doing most to control other people’s lives. That hostility and fear must be shifted onto the weak, onto those with the least power.
For men this means trying to emulate the powerful. For women it means trying to appease and please the powerful – in the hope that they might be admitted as ‘honorary members’ of the club by having a manchild who will then have the power and freedom they don’t. Both attitudes share a basic sympathy with power – neither does the sensible, reasonable thing, which is to smash it with a hammer.
And instead of loving women, loving those who care for others and sacrificing themselves – instead, the child must be taught to ‘hate’ them. ‘Hate’ isn’t quite the right word. It’s more like anti-empathy. Empathy makes us rejoice when people are strong and happy, and share their pain when they are weakened. But misogyny makes us rejoice at women’s weakness, their submission, their inferiority, makes us love them when they put others ahead of themselves, when they let others make decisions for them, makes us love them when they starve themselves into fragility. But we hate them when they assert themselves, when they put their needs first, when they earn more, know more, and have control.
If you are pleased with someone only to the extent that they do no assert themselves, you hate their selves, and you ultimately hate them.
This is such a horrible idea, when you really understand what it means. Every generation, we give birth to anarchists, and then we have to twist them into the monstrous shape of someone who sympathises with the oppressor and hates the oppressed.
It also suggests a way to characterise what ‘leftwing’ and ‘rightwing’ mean (in their abstract purity, not their various real-world degenations). Right-wing ideology is about blaming society’s problems on those who have least power: immigrants, racial minorities, single mothers, people on welfare, poor people, people in poor countries, petty criminals. It is the ideology of the father and of those who identify with him – who ‘successfully’ resolve the Oedipus/Elektra conflict.
Left-wing ideology is about taking the side of those who have least power and blaming problems on those with the most power: corporations, governments, generals, bankers, imperial countries, rich people, white people, men. It is, one might say, the ideology of children, the ideology of refusing to ‘resolve’ the Oedipus/Elektra conflict. Those who want to retain the emotional constitution of children, hating their enemies and loving their friends, rather than vice versa, with the intellectual sophistication of adults.
We shouldn’t be afraid to admit that our political beliefs reflect our psychology. Of course they do. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong or subjective – it means that our psychology deals with real things, with power and aggression and society, and in that way it can be better or worse, more appropriate or less appropriate.
Freud’s mistake was to let society off the hook – and naturally conclude that ‘psycholigical health’ simply meant being the right kind of fucked-up to fit with a fucked-up society. What was so obvious that I couldn’t believe I had to read a book to see it was that everything he was saying really pointed to the conclusion that psychological health will be largely impossible until society itself is ‘sane’.